Interior Dept designates solar energy zones

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 29, 2009 7:33pm EDT

An array of solar panels point to the Nevada sky as they generate electricity for use on Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

An array of solar panels point to the Nevada sky as they generate electricity for use on Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hoping to speed up the development of renewable energy resources on federal lands, the U.S. Interior Department designated about 670,000 acres of land on Monday as potential areas for solar energy production.

Demand for renewables has created a boom for land previously considered worthless in sunny deserts and wind-swept

plains. At the same time, it has become a controversy as environmentalists and politicians, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, have decried federal plans to open ecologically sensitive land to development.

"This environmentally sensitive plan will identify appropriate Interior-managed lands that have excellent solar energy potential and limited conflicts with wildlife, other natural resources or land users," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The land is divided into 24 solar energy zones spread across six western states and could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity. The department will evaluate the possible environmental impacts of solar production in these areas as well as their energy resources.

"The objective is to provide landscape-scale planning and zoning for solar projects on (Bureau of Land Management) lands in the West, allowing a more efficient process for permitting and sitting responsible solar development," the department said.

President Barack Obama has made moving the United States away from reliance on fossil fuels a key priority of his administration. Obama has pledged to double renewable energy production in three years and supports setting a national renewable power mandate.

The Interior Department created a special task force in March to identify the specific areas on public lands where the government could act rapidly to create large-scale renewable energy production.

The department's Bureau of Land Management has received about 470 renewable energy project applications, including 158 active solar applications.

Feinstein, a renewable proponent, in a March letter to Salazar in particular criticized opening to development 600,000 acres donated to the government for conservation.

"That is unacceptable!" she wrote, promising legislation.

The environmentalist group National Resources Defense Council called the federal map "the right path" and Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch welcomed the department's announcement.

"Notably, requiring BLM to perform environmental impact analyses of the Solar Energy Study Areas will ensure responsible development of solar energy on public lands and would expedite the permitting process for these projects," Resch said. "In short, everyone wins."

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; additional reporting by Peter Henderson in San Francisco; editing by Christian Wiessner and Andre Grenon)

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